Suppose tomorrow, on present-day Earth, a group of scientists published a paper detailing a series of experiments conducted over the last ten years that successfully activated and deactivated the quality of life that makes a creature intelligent. The means of this technology could be a specific radio signal, manipulation of DNA, or what have you; it's not pertinent to this question.

How would general society respond to this development in both the immediate and long-term time frames? What legal and cultural ramifications would occur?

Whatever the means of controlling intelligence, assume it is easy to produce in a dedicated lab, but not trivial or inexpensive. The cost to produce this effect is roughly \$25,000 (US) (with working equipment) and can be done by a team of four scientists and one engineer. Building the necessary equipment requires four months of dedicated work, \$100,000 (US), and 5,000 sq. ft. of workspace (space for security apparatus and private power source included).

Creatures made intelligent by this process don't spontaneously start speaking human languages; they are still limited by their physical capabilities. However, their new-found intelligence does offer them the ability to learn human language as easily as the average human. When a creature is first made intelligent, it is roughly equivalent to a three-year-old human child; creatures made unintelligent revert to their previous state (ape-like for humans). Creatures with larger or more complex brains (e.g., sharks, dolphins, elephants) can achieve a higher final level of intelligence, potentially exceeding current human levels of intelligence; insects, spiders, mice, and similar small creatures barely progress beyond the initial intelligence state.

As implied above, currently-intelligent creatures (i.e., humans) and newly-intelligent creatures alike can have their intelligence turned on or off via this technology. The process requires between 4-8 hours of work, depending on the individual involved; the individual must remain still throughout the process, usually through sedation. A creature can be forced to undergo the process, typically by being sedated first.

  • $\begingroup$ Have you read Flowers for Algernon? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel I did, back in primary school. i don't remember it well enough to give a summary. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ "Creatures with larger or more complex brains e.g., sharks" ?! Sharks' brains are tiny! $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild That's a misconception. A white shark's brain can be two feet long and is extremely complex. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 0:41
  • $\begingroup$ But that IS super cheap with the numbers you are giving ! Not for the average person, but mostly any laboratory in the world has this kind of money readily available. $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 7:38

3 Answers 3


TL;DR: Realistically, I'm going to hazard a guess that this would end up like most modification experiments (such as cloning or modifying our own intelligence) and would be split down the middle of those who would like to make animals intelligent and those who don't. It would probably be banned on humans as there would be huge ethical concerns.

Before I get started, let me just define that every time I say "intelligent" or "intelligence" I refer to human intelligence, and "animal" means all animals minus human.


  • Some societies think that animals must be below them. Religions come to mind first as several state that humans were created as intelligent beings and are the only intelligent beings in the universe. They may pressure the government to ban the technology outright out of ethical concerns (We've banned human cloning for the same reason).

  • Animals may notice that their fellow animals are being harmed/caged and lash out (Think Rise of the Planet of the Apes). People may be concerned for this and even if they allow animal intelligence, they would probably be given less rights than a human. They can't be allowed to congregate, would likely have communication heavily restricted, would likely have mating restricted or not at all, and would likely have someone ready to kill the animal in the worst case scenario.

  • Militaries might take advantage of this. I mean, how would you know what animal is intelligent and what one isn't? Trained operative animals could disguise themselves as being a regular animal and infiltrate secret facilities. A bird is flying over a secret military base right now. Should they shoot it down out of concern for privacy like they would any aircraft or risk having information leaked? A lot of animals would have to be killed because they entered restricted airspace/got in through other means.

  • In terms of humans I don't really even see this being tested, let alone practised. Forget the huge costs involved, the huge ethical concerns would likely arise by turning off someone's intelligence would stop most labs from conducting the experiments. There are many experiments today we've banned on humans due to ethical concerns.


  • Scientifically, what an achievement. There will most likely be several experiments conducted by independent scientists to test the theory in the paper. There may even be some stories early on to bring attention to the new technology (Think of how cloning was brought to light when Dolly the sheep was cloned).

  • Likely we'd turn on the intelligence of an animal with a large brain. If our brain can think of complex ideas, could a larger brain think of even more complex ideas?

  • Intelligent animals may be able to explain some things from their viewpoints that we had no idea or very little idea about. For example, do animals have religions?

  • If there was a fair amount of investing, the costs could be reduced to amounts low enough that a lot of animals could be made intelligent easily, or make them start off with higher intelligence

  • The question only states that you could turn on/off intelligence, but if this technology continues to grow, you might be able to increase our own intelligence.


I don't think we'd have any real use for intelligent animals after the first rush of intelligent animals are "turned on". Investment would likely not be as much as required to make the field flourish.

  • We wouldn't use them for labour (too expensive)

  • They would take a long time to mature (start off at age 3 intelligence)

  • Animals may not be able to fit into our society well (We have racists, so I think animalists would also exist)

  • Animals would have a huge physical disadvantage for most things (Apes can't actually talk in human language because their voice box physically doesn't allow it and they can't control it as well)

  • Artificial intelligence would likely surpass human and animal intelligence in the near future, so super intelligent animals wouldn't be necessary.

  • You'd likely not be able to "own" an intelligent animal like you can't own a human.

This is not really being against it, but is not for either. It would just be another science experiment we COULD do, but not necessarily would do.


After initial fears that this could be a tool used by the very rich to make the rest of the population stupid, later test results showed that mass stupid-ification would be costly and generally unfeasible on the population as a whole.

Assuming that the medical device regulators approve this Uplift technology then the following might happen:

Pressures to be Smart

Evolution places a strong emphasis on smarts in humans. Generally, though not always, someone who is smarter will do better than someone who isn't. Being smarter carries a large benefit. "Smart Pills" have been a common scam for centuries but the persistence of the scam indicates that a certain portion of the population desperately wants to be smarter. Given the low capital requirements for this kind of Uplift technology, pretty much anyone can do it. Clinics would pop up everywhere on the Uplift product offerings of medical device manufacturers who would pile into the Uplift market. In a matter of years, anyone who wanted to smarter could be smarter.

Pressures to be Dumb

Since everyone has become as smart as they can be, it becomes a punishment to make them stupid again. For certain non-violent crimes, a criminal doesn't go to prison, they just have to endure a dumbing down for a period or permanently.

Effects on Creatures

It's a common trope to uplift animals and give them the ability to speak/think/behave on par with humans. Experimentation on animals would continue apace. Scientists of all kinds would have a field day because of the research opportunities provided. For example, any profession that requires diagnosis of a condition in an animal must make inferences about the condition. An uplifted animal can just say "I hurt here and it's this kind of pain."

Translators for each uplifted animals would appear fairly quickly. Dogs and cats will get translation collars.

Legally, uplifted animals will call into question a long precedent of animals as property. If an animal can be made to meet or exceed human intelligence then a strong argument could be made to give them legal 'personhood'.


The most common response would be "Forget the animals, I want my dose right now!"

For early adopters, the competitive advantage would be extremely great. Financial wizards would be able to manipulate the stock, bond, currency and commodities markets to their advantage, smart criminals could take even bigger scores, smart cops could initially clear the streets of dumb criminals, kids going to elite prep schools will be getting "speed of light" SAT scores and manipulating their entry questionnaires to ensure they get into top rated universities etc. There would be a mad rush to adopt these techniques (possibly even before they are "proven" in controlled scientific studies), and a black market would quickly arise as well (see the movie "Limitless" for one look at how this could play out). Lots of scams would also be done to lure people into paying for ineffective versions of the technique (think of all the "male growth" products on the market today).

As the knowledge of this technique leaks out, eventually the competitive advantage is lessened: you are trying to manipulate the stock market against millions of other super genius stockbrokers, the thug on the corner is a smart as Stephen Hawking, the guy serving coffee and donuts is as smart as Batman and millions of kids with perfect SAT scores are trying to get into Harvard or MIT. The bell curve will reassert itself, just at a much higher level for the median.

Sadly there will always be an underclass of people who were initially too poor to get access to the drug/technique and were left too far behind to catch up (the long left tail of the bell curve) and potentially people who the technique simply does not work on (no technique or drug is 100% effective on everyone, this should be no exception). There will also be a long right tail of the bell curve as well, early adopters, people who this technique works on better than average and people who use their new found smarts to experiment with the technique to amplify their intelligence even more.

So expect a wave of disruption as the effects of vastly more intelligent people start hitting the streets. Like people everywhere, they will be looking first and foremost for their own self interest, so we will not be seeing a serene utopia of Elon Musks building cool things for us, but rather hundreds of Elon Musks competing for market share (although we will benefit from having all kinds of cool stuff to choose from in this market). We will also face predation from super criminals (think of Neil McCauley from Heat meticulously planning how to rob your house and steal your identity), and most social constructs and organizations will start breaking down as people "outgrow" the need for them. A few social organizations might survive as super intelligent Rotarians decide that they will prosper even more as a mutual self help society. Political and legal institutions will be under a great deal of stress, particularly as people use their super intelligence to evade "gatekeeper" functions and avoid regulations and laws which hinder them from reaching their goals. Since I am not super intelligent (yet), I cannot guess as to how they will change, or if they will even survive such a change.

  • $\begingroup$ Since you put so much effort into this, I weep as I write this. There appear to be a few misconceptions. The reported method has minimal effect on humans: it reduces their intelligence to that of a common ape (it can't improve an already-intelligent creature). Also, intelligence isn't the same as smarts. If a creature is made more intelligent, it still has to learn information normally, it just does so more easily. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ I have re read your question and don't see where it says humans become less intelligent, so unless my intelligence pill stopped working...Any backers of the project upon being told it only works on animals would almost certainly say "WTF, animals? We hired you to make people smarter" before calming down enough to determine what sorts of markets can be created for enhanced dogs and other already useful creatures humans already are familiar with. I don't think anyone would look kindly on intelligent sharks roaming the oceans. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ "...successfully activated and deactivated the quality of life that makes a creature intelligent." They can't otherwise influence it. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ This seems incredibly counterintuitive. If a technique can affect any brain by reorganizing it to become more intelligent (you specifically mention sharks and insects, for example) then why would it not work on a human brain? As well, you imply that other mammalian creatures with large brains could potentially become more intelligent than humans, which would seem to contradict the stricture you are placing on the question. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 3:40
  • $\begingroup$ As I mentioned in the question, the why and how the process works aren't of concern. Take it on faith as the way it is. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 3:43

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